Sunday, August 31, 2008

Vermicomposting: Results and 4 Quick Lessons

I harvested my first set of compost (castings) today! It's really amazing what ten worms can do in a few weeks (see above).

Some things I have been learning since starting to vermicompost:

(1) Variety is important, particularly if you're adding acidic scraps; don't add too much of one thing.
(2) Make sure it doesn't get to hot for the worms (this summer, that was the main problem at first.
(3) If fruit flies arrive, mix the compost so that their eggs get buried and fruit scraps are not exposed. Don't feed for a while if these little flies are a major problem.
(4) Worms can even eat disposable paper cups-- They will just leave that tiny bit of waxy paper.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Grameen Bank: Part 2

Jo Hunter Adams

Mohammed Yunus' history of the Grameen bank, Banker to the Poor, was written in 1999, and offers some perspective on the movement. I enjoyed it because it faced some of the challenges to the movement head-on, and so made it easier to understand the motivations and ideas that made micro-lending a success in the case of the Grameen Bank.

To recap, the movement started in the 1970s with an encounter with poverty. A woman earned dismal profit (2c) weaving stools every day. Her profit kept her stuck where she was- with nothing. All she needed was the capital to be autonomous. Yunus saw possibility.

The concept of lending without collateral was revolutionary, and in a way, still is. In Bangladesh, only the rich were permitted to get loans. The argument was that filling out and processing forms would make lending to the poor unprofitable. That is, even before thinking about collateral, lending to the poor just didn't seem worthwhile.

Today, the Grameen bank is sustainable. At the time of writing, the standard amount of interest was 20% per year, as compared to 15% per month for other non-bank sources of loans in Bangladesh.

Yunus discovered that one of the main reasons that individuals failed to pay their loans back was the daunting size of the payment at the end of the loan period. Instead, in the Grameen bank the payments are weekly, very small and therefore not too daunting.

What is striking is that everything in the structure of the bank is oriented towards long term change. For example, a branch of the bank is not permitted to expand until it has a 100% repayment rate. Its foundation and management has to be really good before it begins to reach more people.

It also tries to prepare borrowers for the long term. Each individual who receives a loan deposits 5% of the loan in a group fund. This group fund is meant to protect the borrowers during hard times. As a result, rather than running away from the loan when severe financial hardship strikes, the borrower is able to ride out the storm.

Criticisms of microlending come from both sides of the political spectrum, and Yunus provides some defense in Banker for the poor. One argument is that the bank depends heavily on the cultural context concerned. Although it is clear that Grameen relies heavily on personal relationships and social pressure, it is not clear why these relationships couldn't exist universally.

Another common criticism of the Grameen Bank is that it diffuses righteous anger around inequality. Therefore the poor, rather than being a constant reminder to the rich, become poor but content. Rather than protesting an unjust system, the poor are thinking about minor entrepeneurial activities. I have heard a similar criticism of Mother Theresa, who, critics argue, didn't change the system itself, but only made the system seem less horrific.

My response is that it is very hard to change a system. Microlending that is repaid does, at some level, actually change the system itself. The poorest of the poor may not be as visible if a bank is truly successful, but this visibility may shift rather than actually disappear. If an individual was struggling to survive, I would also argue that they were not in a good position to protest an unjust system.

People also ask "why is no skills training required to get a loan?" Yunus argues that although skills training is available and important, the very poor in Bangladesh often have immense fear of trainings. It would be an impossible barrier for some people who DO have the skills necessary to manage, repay, and benefit from their loan. Yunus turns the "trickle down effect" upside down; if the poorest of the poor are doing better, he argues, the effect will "bubble up."

Importantly, Grameen is doing all types of other things to show the world that doing business with and for the poor CAN be profitable. They are involved in telecommunications, healthcare, and even fish farming.

The challenge to us may be to look closely at this business model as an alternative to the dependency model still lived out by many aid agencies. There are plenty of ways this type of business model is already lived out in the informal sector, so I am not intending to introduce anything new or revolutionary. I am just thinking about how the informal sector deserves a new name, maybe a name that evokes a little more respect?

Poor Countries in Debt: Part 1

Jo Hunter Adams

“Sometimes in life one has to admit that things just aren’t working. This is one of those times.” p178 The Debt Threat, Noreena Hertz.

Last week I spoke about how Mohammed Yunus and the world bank think of credit as an opportunity for the poor to survive and better themselves. I will also talk more about the Grameen in a post in the next week, but for now I would like to talk about the debt that plagues many of the poorest nations in the world. This post is based on my reading of The Debt Threat by Noreena Hertz. Debt and Credit are two sides of the same coin.

Most of the debt of poor countries did nothing to help them grapple with poverty. Yet today, debt repayment makes poverty more intractable than ever.

"Much of the debt of poor countries is left over from the 1970s - and often arose through reckless or self-interested lending by the rich world." (Noreena Hertz) In the height of the cold war, wealthy countries used their wealth to buy the friendships of other countries. They attempted to win countries over to their political system by implying that system was synonymous with abundant resources. Not surprisingly, lenders were less interested in where the money was spent than on how it served them politically.

Just as quickly, at the end of Cold War, debts were suddenly due. Before reading The Debt Threat, I had not connected the concept of "sustainable development" with the end of the Cold War. Hertz makes this connection. And it's a powerful one! Suddenly, development needed to be sustainable, not based on loans, at the same time that loans were no longer politically necessary. Understanding the origins of the system is really helpful for making sense of why "sustainable development" is generally not terribly sustainable. Hertz is arguing that the driving force behind sustainable development was political; it was not based in the inherent dignity of self-sufficiency.

The impact of debt repayment is dire. Instead of spending money on health care or social infrastructure, funds are spent servicing loans. The argument that many advocated of debt-forgiveness make is that if all debt were to be cancelled, there would be no real negative impact on the countries or institutions who own the loans. The $150 billion would not be missed-- it would not impact stock value, employees, or governments. Yet the payment of the debts has a huge impact. If debt were canceled it would free up money to tackle infectious diseases and maternal and child health.

One could argue that the money used for debt repayment will never be used for infrastructure in countries that have corrupt governments. And many of the governments with the most debt are also the most corrupt. This argument doesn't strike me as reason to hold on to debt. After colonialism (another breeding-ground for corruption), the existence of abundant credit bred corrupt politicians.

Hertz argues that making an entire country meet subjective standards of good governance may not be the job of those holding the debts or advocating for debt forgiveness. It may only be their role to create islands of good governance.

Hertz also provides a framework for the forgiveness of debt. She argues that sovereign debts should be canceled and considered illegitimate if three conditions apply:

1 The regime borrowing money lacked democratic consent.

2 The monies were used in ways that were inimical to the interests of the population

3 The lender knew that monies would be used in such a way

Hertz also argues that a nation should be able to declare bankruptcy, under specific conditions. Her line of reasoning makes sense-- why should one try to draw blood from a stone?

I recommend The Debt Threat because it provides a framework in which to think about when and how to cancel debt without encouraging irresponsibility. I was left wondering how colonialism-imperialism-slavery fitted into this paradigm of debt and indebtedness. It's a relationship I would like to process more fully, and probably could use some help thinking about.

A Few Resources

Jubilee Debt Campaign

Questions and Answers on debt relief

Jubilee USA:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Grameen Bank: Part 1

Jo Hunter Adams

I've been thinking about how to use The Concrete Gardener as a tool for my own learning, as well as a tool to facilitate other people's learning. One way to do this might be through book-centered topics. Where, ordinarily, I might read a book and then forget about it, here I can share a few key points as I go along, and perhaps be more likely to remember the stories and approaches I convey to you.

Unfortunately, I seldom find enough time to read and write, so please bear with me as I try to figure out the minimum amount of time needed to produce good quality content. My wager is that I'll get better with experience.

After I learned about the Green Belt Movement at the end of last month, I wanted to learn more about really large community based movements that seem to work. An obvious choice was the Grameen bank. I first read The Price of a Dream by David Bornstein, and am currently starting Banker to the Poor by Mohammed Yunus himself. I wanted to write one article before encountering what Yunus has to say about his "own" movement.

Laying the Foundation
The word "Grameen" comes from the Bangla word gram, or village. As I learned about the origins of the movement, I was struck by how long it took before The Grameen Bank really became a bank, or really began at all. Mohammed Yunus spent five years in a small, extremely poor village in Bangladesh (Jobra), walking and talking with long-time residents, and learning about their needs and priorities. Although he was from Bangladesh, he was an extremely well-educated professor and so belonged, quite literally, to a completely different world. I thought about what this would mean, both in terms of the way that 6 month- 2 year contracts work in the Development/NGO industry, and in terms of my own life trajectory. Either way, five years is a long time. Reading about the process, however, these five years seemed to be one of the most important keys to the success of the Grameen Bank. The Bank has been such a success because it started as something people wanted. It might also have been a success because it suited a specific geographic context, and foundations had been carefully laid in the place where the first branches were built.

What is the Grameen Bank?
In short, the students of Yunus, and Yunus himself, determined that small, short-term credit could make the difference between extreme poverty and progress. The response to this need became the Grameen Bank.

The Bank challenged the notion that only credit that requires collateral is credit that works. Rather, they said, lending to the very poor can be sustainable. In order to receive a loan, a prospective member must join a group of five individuals, who pay back a portion of their loan during their weekly meeting. The five individuals are responsible for all the loans within the group. This allows for a degree of self-supervision. Loans generally start small enough to be paid within one year.

The idea behind this strategy is that poverty reduction can best be achieved through the creation of assets. In opposition to the trickle down effect, The Grameen Bank model argues that wealth can bubble, or trickle, up.

I think one of the most important questions Yunus, and The Grameen Bank, raise, is the question "Is Credit a Human Right?" Thinking about the bank from a position of very limited knowledge, I can't help but think that the world's common approach to credit is all wrong. In the United States, much individual (and perhaps even national) debt seems to lead to time poverty, a lack of career choices, stress and fear. In the coming weeks, I will be talking about Third World Debt, another kind of credit that has lead to absurd and pernicious decisions that affect the health and livelihoods of millions. Yet credit has tremendous potential for the poor, for whom it can mean increased freedom and decision making power.

Other Organizations/Banks involved in Microfinance
Accion International
Kenyan Rural Enterprise Program

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Green Roofs

Jo Hunter Adams

As some of you might remember, last year I described the beautiful garden on the roof of BMC, administered by The Food Project. Since then, I've been learning about Green Roofs overall. And so, it seems, has Boston, even the Natick mall is onboard with plans for a green roof well underway.

In places with extreme temperatures, green roofs generally mean less cooling is needed in the summer, and less heating is needed in the winter. If set up correctly, they actually lengthen the lifetime of the roof significantly. And if you can't afford to formally set up the entire space as a green roof, you can also use large pots, or even kid's paddling pools, as a means of creating a green space on top of the world. It seems elegantly simple: the heat that used to make summer unbearable is now used for photosynthesis. It's essentially turned into heat that you can eat.

Wellesley grads/current students, have you ever ventured to the roof of the science center? I keep on thinking about that space and how it could be used for growth. Of course, Wellesley does not have the same space issues that the city of Boston has, but with all the incredible scientists (and plant physiologists) there seems to be an opportunity to turn an energy disaster (how much must it cost to heat all that empty space in the Focus?!) into a space of innovation and research.

Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls by Nigel Dunnett and Noel Kingsbury is a great resource for thinking about how to plant and green your lives. They explain Green roofs without focusing on food production, but rather on creating architecture that is consistent with an existing landscape, rather than in opposition to it. It gives wonderful technical insight into how you could actually do this in a way that keeps your plants alive for the long term, and keeps your roof strong.

As for me, though, I'm really interested in roofs as a potential space for food production. In American cities, the poor (and, to an extent, the rich) eat food that is damaging to their health. I can attest to the fact that produce just doesn't taste the same in the U.S., as compared to South Africa. Empowering individuals in apartments in even the most urban of urban areas means that food production is no longer outside of the hands of the people who want to eat well. Having food in spaces that are accessible and safe (on the rooftops of residents' buildings, for example) means that gardening does not need to be an elite leisure activity. Here's a great link to the potential of rooftop spaces as spaces of food production.

When one enters New York city, the first thing one sees is the Bronx-- seemingly never-ending high rise buildings in the polluted haze that's the result of being a main corridor into Manhattan for ever type of truck and commuter. I wonder what it would be like to have good, fresh food growing in accessible places in the Bronx?

(Picture from "American Wick Drain")

Some of the Benefits of Green Urban Roofs
(From Urban Design Tools)
Reduce city “heat island” effect
Reduce CO2 impact
Reduce summer air conditioning cost
Reduce winter heat demand
Potentially lengthen roof life 2 to 3 times
Treat nitrogen pollution in rain
Negate acid rain effect
Help reduce volume and peak rates of stormwater

Grow Boston Greener
Boston's Urban Forest Coalition

Monday, August 4, 2008

7: Arnold Arboretum

I got close to a butterfly yesterday.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Day 6 Arboretum

A whole ecosystem in a tree.

I managed to find a bee laden with pollen. Amazing.

Day 5, Arnold Arboretum